Cult leaders use a combination of isolation, threats, and coercion to brainwash individuals into doing as they’re told, and Sex, Lies and the College Cult depicts a textbook example of that modus operandi. The story of Larry Ray, a con man who convinced a group of Sarah Lawrence students to become his de facto acolytes, Peacock’s documentary (Sept. 28) is a primer on how such fiends get their hooks into unsuspecting and vulnerable targets, and subsequently perpetuate cycles of horrific abuse and exploitation. It’s also, among other things, a cautionary tale about the dangers of keeping shady company at college.
Larry Ray’s saga is one of manipulation, paranoia, and terror, and it commences in earnest in the 1990s, when the Brooklyn, New York, native befriended and became a close adviser to Bernard Kerik, the future commissioner of the New York Police Department. Ray was the best man at Kerik’s wedding and, according to Sex, Lies and the College Cult, he helped broker an introduction between Mikhail Gorbachev and Kerik’s boss, NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani, thereby solidifying his wheeler-dealer bona fides. Things went south, however, when Ray was busted for conspiring with the Gambino crime family on a $40 million Wall Street securities fraud scheme and Kerik refused to bail him out. In response, Ray ratted on Kerik about his mob-financed home renovations, which apparently helped land Kerik in prison.
That was just the beginning of Ray’s madness. After violating his probation by absconding with his daughter Talia—a violation of a custody arrangement with his ex-wife—Ray served time behind bars. When he got out, he decided to move into the sophomore year house occupied by Talia and her friends at Sarah Lawrence College. This was an obviously creepy arrangement, and it became creepier still when Ray established himself as a veritable life coach for Talia’s housemates Santos Rosario, Daniel Levin, Claudia Drury and Isabella Pollok, the last of whom shared a bed with Ray. Unsurprisingly, parents complained to the school about this situation, albeit to no avail, and it wasn’t long before the magnetic Ray had swayed these young, impressionable 20-year-olds into believing he was a compassionate soul with the solutions to their personal and familial problems.
For Sarah Lawrence’s 2010 winter break, Ray, Talia and Isabella temporarily relocated to the Upper East Side apartment of Lee Chen, Ray’s former friend, and following a spring semester back at the Sarah Lawrence dorm, everyone moved to Manhattan, where things took a darker, stranger turn. As explained by Ezra Marcus, who broke the story with James D. Walsh in 2019 for New York magazine, as well as The Daily Beast’s own senior national reporter, Pilar Melendez, it was at this point that Ray began sheltering his charges from the outside world, creating a closed environment where he could be their psychologist, their lover, and their tormentor. Described as “the epitome of a malignant narcissist” by cult expert Dr. Janja Lalich, Ray held lengthy daytime and nocturnal therapy sessions in which everyone was accused of various fictitious infractions and then forced to atone for them. He also started physically assaulting them, which he documented on video.As all successful cult leaders do, Ray slowly ratcheted up the oppressive, controlling pressure and expanded his fiefdom to include additional would-be members. Talia’s ex-boyfriend Iban Goicoechea viewed Ray as a confidant and, following his Marine Corps service in Afghanistan, additionally saw him as a military leader with relatable paranoid delusions. Santos, meanwhile, convinced his sisters Felicia and Yalitza to seek Ray’s assistance, and both moved to New York after Felicia had already struck up a long-distance romantic relationship with him (which involved, among other things, having sex with other men on video for Ray’s viewing pleasure). Before long, Chen’s apartment was the headquarters for Ray’s cult, and he treated it as his own, having his minions renovate and redecorate it without Chen’s approval—resulting in a six-year attempt by Chen to have Ray evicted from the premises.
Sex, Lies and the College Cult recounts all of this via interviews with journalists, experts and Kerik, clips of Ray’s traumatic home movies, archival photographs, trial testimony (accompanied by courtroom sketches), and perfunctory dramatic recreations that lean heavily on fuzzy imagery. Formally speaking, we’re in functional Dateline-esque territory, meaning there’s scant style to this investigation, nor much digging beneath the surface of Ray’s exploits. Still, the material’s particulars are so shocking as to require little embellishment, culminating with Ray taking some of his disciples down to the North Carolina home of his stepfather Gordon and forcing them to do manual labor. This was a way to get the property fixed up for free, as well as an opportunity to place them further under his thumb—which he did by accusing them of breaking landscaping equipment and forcing them to pay him back by asking their parents for tens of thousands of dollars.
Ray thus used his position to transform the kids into personal profit centers, and Claudia eventually became his prime earner, since she was compelled by Ray to work as a New York City prostitute for four years, during which time she saw upwards of five clients a day and earned him, in total, more than $2 million. Ray’s depravity seemingly knew no bounds, and Sex, Lies and the College Cult lays it out in exacting detail, all while underlining that—because the kids were over 18, and because the true criminal conduct occurred not on Sarah Lawrence’s campus but in private New York and North Carolina residences—there were few legal or parental impediments standing in Ray’s calculating way. That Ray was facilitated by his daughter and Isabella Pollok in this system of abuse only makes it worse, and it might have continued unabated if not for the cult members gradually breaking free of his grasp, and for Marcus being tipped off about a website hosting Ray’s malevolent videos.
Sex, Lies and the College Cult provides a chilling lesson about the pitfalls faced by even bright and talented kids when they venture out into the world on their own. Consequently, no matter that Sarah Lawrence wasn’t found liable for Ray’s actions, it’s a documentary that perhaps should be required viewing during college freshman year orientation.
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